From his encircled lair in Baghdad, Nizar Hamdoon reaches out to America with the most effective and deadly of modern weapons -- the telephone, the television camera and the fax machine -- to make Americans think kinder and gentler thoughts about his boss, Saddam Hussein.

Hamdoon is a deputy foreign minister and formerly the top Iraqi diplomat in Washington. But he is much more than that. He is the smiling, human face of an inhuman regime. By trade a diplomat and intelligence operative, Hamdoon is by nature one of the great publicists of our time. It gives Saddam Hussein too much credence to say that he is worse than Hitler, but it is no exaggeration to say that Hamdoon is better than Goebbels.

Until Aug. 2, visas to Iraq for Western journalists were as scarce as hen's teeth. But since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, there has been a steady parade into Baghdad of newspaper reporters and television anchormen. The latest gimmick has brought political has-beens Ted Heath, Yasu Nakasone and Willy Brandt to Baghdad to lick Saddam's boots on camera to obtain freedom for a few hostages.

They and Jesse Jackson are to be congratulated for helping free their fellow citizens. But we -- and they -- must not remain silent about, or forgive, the criminal nature of these transactions. Access and human beings are being bartered by the Iraqis to the outside world for a better image.

Iraq is letting in scores of American reporters whom it would have routinely banned before Washington and Baghdad went on a war footing. Iraq holds hostage 1,000 Americans -- solely because they are Americans -- while it allows selected American journalists to come and go on regularly scheduled flights.

John Simpson, a perceptive BBC correspondent with extended experience in Iraqi affairs, questioned this arrangement recently over dinner with an Iraqi official. Simpson recorded his candid response in The Spectator magazine:

"Your presence here and the reporting you do means that Baghdad ceases to be an abstraction in the minds of people in the West. It becomes for you a real place, with real people. If the Americans bomb us, everyone knows that ordinary people like themselves will be killed. In a way, you are a form of national defense for us."

That of course is not the way a working journalist sees his or her role. Reports from Baghdad in The Post and other papers on opposition to Saddam and the Kuwait invasion and the reign of terror there show that Iraq cannot turn the Western press into a propaganda machine working on its behalf.

Simpson does not name the official. He does not have to. Those who have dealt with Hamdoon in Baghdad and Washington will instantly recognize Simpson's "witty, sharp-minded and subtle" host, "trailing a string of worry beads in some expensive semiprecious stone from a languid hand and speaking English as well as any of his {British and American} guests" at the dinner.

Hi, Nizar.

Hamdoon came to Washington in 1983 with the mission of reestablishing U.S.-Iraqi diplomatic ties, broken off by Baghdad in 1967. That took only a year. But unlike most Arab diplomats, Hamdoon also understood and worked the newer elites of Washington foreign policy making: Congress, the media and the business community. Charming, a generous and active host in his Woodland Terrace mansion, Hamdoon was open and ready to talk to anyone in Washington about anything.

Well, almost anything. He would not talk about his previous job for a decade, which had been supervising the Regional Command of the ruling Baath Party in Baghdad. That meant that Hamdoon ran the subversion and propaganda campaigns Iraq directed at its rival party regime in Syria. An American official who once asked Hamdoon not so innocently what his previous duties had been received only a cold stare and an invitation to change the subject.

In an article he wrote for The Post's Outlook section in 1987, Hamdoon explained the priority he attached to the public-relations aspect of diplomacy and the philosophy that continues to guide Baghdad's view of Washington:

"Public opinion is what matters in this country, especially at a time of a crisis; that's when you need {the media} the most. . . . Before that you should establish a two-way relationship based on understanding and mutual benefits. . . . Nothing is ever final in Washington. Everything is always developing. Every policy triggers its own opposition. Everything and everyone is workable."

Hamdoon returned to Baghdad and a senior post in the foreign ministry in 1987. He continued his PR work by briefing the rare visiting correspondent and, as he continues to do during the crisis, telephoning Washington editors, reporters and academics to explain how reasonable Saddam really is and how ready to compromise he would be if only George Bush would stop talking war.

Hamdoon is about as good a snake-oil merchant as there is. But what he sells is poison. Saddam made the bet on Aug. 2, undoubtedly after listening to America-watcher Hamdoon, that Washington would stay "workable" even if Iraq invaded and dismembered Kuwait. It will be a disaster for this nation and for global order if Hamdoon turns out to be right about us.